Diary For Wednesday, March 13,2019: The Grand European Tour Aboard the The Orient Express Begins With Stumbles.
From the moment we began telling friends of these plans, many of them wanted to know all about it. The idea came from my wife Mary Ann, who has fantasized about a trip on the legendary railroad crossing of Europe since she was a teenager. Now, with our thirty-year anniversary looming, we began making the plans.
The first thing we learned was that this is not an inexpensive mode of travel. It would run a shade below $6,000 for the two of us. That’s just a lot of money. So we thought about it a long time, to make sure we knew what we were getting into. The classy quality of the journey was obvious. The culinary aspect of this moving venue was also obvious: every meal is a big deal, and the ingredients and staff were first-class.The train itself is a magnificent display of the history of private 1920’s-vintage travel.
And then there was the romantic appeal. In one’s compartment for two, one can watch the world go by. After dark, the daytime bed can be refolded to create twin sleepers. One had to decide who would be on top.
Returning to the dining cars (the train had three of those),we find are plenty of opportunities to dine. They begin the food services with brunch, from which you can truly stuff yourself. If you miss this mid-morning meal, you get a second chance at it the following day.
Brunch is such an affair that it can be considered to be the main meal of the day. And then there was by a lighter lunch. The bar is open all day. I was mildly astonished by the bartenders’ ability. But they didn’t hesitate a second before they made a just-right Negroni for me. That was something I thought about in this regard since we laid our money down.
At dinnertime, the Orient Express required that men don tuxedos– or, at least, jacket and tie. I take almost every chance I have to wear a tux, but my suitcases were so stuffed into the baggage car that most of us couldn’t get at them.
The dinners proved to be the best meals, and not merely because of the cooking. Starting with the first one, we became friendly with the people who shared our tables. They came from all parts of the world. It’s a good thing that the train didn’t have to turn its tables, because most of us wanted to stay all night. In the center of the bar was a grand piano, commanded by a young man with an eminently listenable jazz style. And he was nice enough to allow me to sing a couple of numbers with him.
Dinner, after-dinner drinks, and general visiting with our newfound friends went on for hours. But then, the first few travelers began to drift to their cars. Many of them could still be found even as we approached the wee hours of the morning–MA among them. A mother-and-daughter pair of businesswomen from Dublin chatted about world politics and travels with Mary Ann till 2. a.m, and they could have talked all night.
I stuck with my usual food topic, and found no problem getting a lot of opinions as to the goodness of the food. Anyone looking for controversy in the cooking department was limited in to its selection in the edibles, not its goodness. Lamb chops, confit of duck and a filet mignon. All around those items were clusters of cheeses, charcuteries, and the like. It wasn’t what I’d call brilliant, but it did supply the needs for memorable and festive eats.
The days before our travels on the Orient Express–which took up only three days total–had Mary Ann in constant activity. How could it not be that way in London before the train voyage and Venice after? Or Verona? MA kept a diary throughout the two weeks we were away from New Orleans. We’ll present them with photos in this newsletter every day for the next week. Enjoy! And think long and hard about going on your own Orient Express. We can’t decide whether we’d ever do it again, but the very thinking about it is matter for consideration.
El Gato Negro. French Quarter: 81 French Market Place. 504-525-9752.
Warehouse District & Center City: 800 S. Peters St. 504-525-5752.
Lakeview: 300 Harrison Ave. 504-488-0107.
Why It’s Essential
In the center of the new restaurant row next to the French Market, El Gato Negro opened its first location in 2007. From day one, it purveyed a menu that its fans–especially those who have never been to Mexico–call “authentic.” What they really mean is “not Tex-Mex.”) In late 2011, a second location in Lakeview opened, adding to the fat pickings already on Harrison Avenue.
The menu includes a minimum of combo platters, mix-and-match tacos, and the like. Instead, the kitchen concentrates on grilled and broiled meats, poultry, and fish, with the tortillas more likely to be found on the side instead of wrapped around everything. Nothing is held back in terms of seasonings, marinades, salsas, or garnishes, all of which are offbeat and convincingly flavorful.
We first met owner Juan Contreras when he and Juan Hernandez opened the spectacular Madrid restaurant in Kenner. The Juans split, with Contreras opening the first El Gato Negro and Hernandez reopening Madrid in what would later become the Lakeview El Gato Negro. Contreras, encouraged by the raves for the taco trucks and taquerias that came in the wake of Katrina, made El Gato Negro bolder than it would otherwise have been.
The French Market location is one large room crammed with tables in a very old building with thick brick walls and neon signs everywhere. The kitchen is only barely separated from the dining area. The sidewalk tables are very popular and, in good weather, a better place to dine than inside. The Lakeview restaurant is a dimmer, cooler space, the decor dominated by high shelves filled with hundreds of tequilas.
For Best Results
You’d get the most out of eating her by steeling your resolve and ordering something you’ve never had before. The French Market location serves an excellent Mexican breakfast on Saturdays and Sundays.
Opportunities for Improvement
Beware the tilapia. The music is loud and irritating.
Anecdotes and Analysis
The good news is that we’re getting more Mexican restaurants in New Orleans, a place which has never supported many ambitious kitchens in that style. The problem lies with us, the customers. We’re stuck on the idea that Mexican food must be cheap and filling, include at least five different items on a single platter, and be covered with melted cheese.
Now and then, El Gato Negro has roast chicken with mole poblano, more likely in the Warehouse district. than in the other two. Why they don’t run that Mexican classic is a mystery.
March 25, 2017
French Quarter Festival April 2-5
Easter April 21
Jazz Festival April 26-May 5
Annals Of Famous Restaurants
Either yesterday, today, or tomorrow can be considered the anniversary of Emeril’s. I was there today in 1990, the second evening of pre-opening dinners. The restaurant opened to the public March 26. Things went wrong, as they always do in new restaurants. But Emeril’s former employer–Ella Brennan of Commander’s Palace–told him, “Change nothing.” He didn’t, and the place took off. It’s hard to believe now, but that was not a foregone conclusion at the time. Emeril had not even begun to achieve the stardom he now enjoys outside New Orleans. It wasn’t quite just another new restaurant.
Emeril’s, as we know now, joined that rarefied list of restaurants whose influence caused major changes in the dining scene. Antoine’s in the 1880s, Galatoire’s in the 1900s, Arnaud’s in the 1920s, Brennan’s in the 1950s, LeRuth’s in the 1970s, Commander’s Palace in the 1980s, and Emeril’s in the 1990s. No restaurant has joined the list yet in the new century, in my opinion.
Celebrity Chefs Today
Today is the birthday (1954) of Greg Picolo, long-time chef of the Bistro at the Maison de Ville, where he distinguished himself. In 2011, the restaurant fell apart (long story, and not his fault). In 2012, Chef Greg joined Redemption, the newly-reopened restaurant formerly known as Christian’s. He was the ideal person for that job; the restaurant had been struggling to find a direction in its first two years. Greg has a direction, all right, and the menu has not only his stamp but that of Christian’s, too.
Deft Dining Rule #200
If you need predictability from a restaurant, find one where the chef has been there a long time. If you want novelty, find one with a history of hiring young chefs who stay a year or two and then open their own places. You can’t have both.
Today is International Waffle Day. Waffles seem special because they’re not often made at home. Waffles are associated with restaurants, with the added touches of which add nice touches like whipped cream, fresh fruit, and real maple syrup, all of which are a lot of trouble in your own kitchen. Restaurants also keep their waffle irons on all the time. That gets around the First-Waffle Problem. For reasons nobody can understand, the first waffle you make is much worse than all the ones that come after.
The best waffles are made with a thick batter containing a good bit of egg and butter. Because butter can be heated much hotter than water, it gives the waffle not only its fine flavor but also a crisp exterior. The other ingredients are milk, self-rising flour (I find that works better than using baking powder) a pinch of salt, a dash of vanilla, and a generous sprinkle of cinnamon (not enough to taste, but enough to add a certain something). A really fabulous waffle comes from separating the egg whites, beating them until they foam, and gently stirring them into the batter.
An overlooked possibility is making non-sweet waffles with ingredients like onions and herbs. They are excellent bottom layers of savory dishes. Small oniony waffles carry caviar and sour cream marvelously well. At the street level, restaurants are popping up all over the country serving fried chicken and waffles.
The Old Kitchen Sage Sez:
The best waffle irons are the kind with big squares and non-stick coatings. Be sure they heat up a long time before you put the first one in. And be ready to give that one to the dog. Or to Dad.
Coffeepot, Arizona is seventy air miles northeast of Phoenix. But the drive is about thirty miles longer up the twisting mountain roads you need to drive to get there. The final miles of the route are tracks suitable only for rugged four-wheel-drive vehicles. Coffeepot is just a camp with a couple of permanent buildings in Coffeepot Canyon, where the ranch animals can get a drink at Coffeepot Tank. All this is at about the 5100-foot level in the Tonto National Forest, whose trees are spread well apart. Visually appealing desert country, where making a pot of coffee over the campfire while baking biscuits in a dutch oven as the sun comes up sounds good. Better than driving all the way to Butcher Hook Restaurant, a fifteen-mile drive down the dirt road into Tonto Basin.
Music To Eat Chicken And Waffles By
Aretha Franklin, who gets our respect as the definitive female soul voice, was born today in 1943. She takes care of TCB.
pea shoots, n., pl.–Pea shoots are the tender new growth of a pea plant, particularly the tendrils that the plant uses to grab onto vertical structures so it can climb them. They usually also include the new leaves. They taste a lot like peas. Although they’ve been eaten by humans for a long time, it’s only recently that restaurant chefs have begun using them as a garnish, replacing parsley and the like. In that use, they’re usually raw, but they can be cooked. We don’t see them in that cooked form as often as we do, say, spinach, because if you take away too many shoots you don’t get any peas. And when it comes to pea plants, the peas are where the money is.
Annals Of Food Tourism
On this date in 1806, the first people to travel by rail took a train through Wales. Their destination: a place where they would consume a few dozen raw oysters on the half shell. Writer Elizabeth Isabella Spence said about the ride: “I have never spent an afternoon with more delight than the one exploring the romantic scenery at Oystermouth (Mumbles). This car contains twelve persons and is constructed chiefly of iron, its four wheels run on an iron railway by the aid of one horse, and the whole carriage is an easy and light vehicle.” She mentioned nothing about the guy who fell off while looking for the bar car.
Annals Of Popular Cuisine
Today in 1995, Pizza Hut rolled out its Stuffed Crust pizza, inspiring commercials showing people eating pizza crust first. Which, by the way, gets messy when you get to the point of the slice–unless it’s a very dry, cheese-poor pizza. The hard part was finding a cheese that would still look like cheese after baking inside dough.
Eating Around The World
Today in the town of Tichborne, in Hampshire, England, a gallon of flour is distributed to every adult in the town, and a half-gallon per child. The Tichborne Dole, as it came to be known, was instituted by Lady Mabella Tichborne. Her dying command to her husband was to make a donation of bread every year on the feast of the Annunciation (nine months before Christmas). She added a curse to it, which came true for one of her husband’s descendants. Afterwards, the Dole was kept up without fail, and still is. Here’s the whole story.
Annals Of Nuts
Today in 1775 (although there’s dispute about the year), George Washington planted pecan trees at Mount Vernon, his home. Some of those trees are still alive. He may have done this at the suggestion of Thomas Jefferson. Both men were strong proponents of pecans, and advised their widespread planting throughout America. It was a good idea. The harvest of pecans–erratic though it may be–is always welcome. And when a pecan branch or a tree falls, its wood is among the finest to burn for grilling food.
Annals Of Food Research
Norman Borlaug was born today in 1914. An American agronomist, he won the 1970 Nobel Prize for the research that evolved into the Green Revolution. He spent much of his career figuring out how places with inadequate food production could grow more and better crops. His notable successes were in Mexico, India, and Pakistan.
Chefs In The News
Today in 2008, Chef Paul Prudhomme was hit by a falling bullet while attending the Zurich Classic golf tournament in New Orleans. He was not hurt.
Long-time major league third baseman Travis Fryman hit the Big Basepath today in 1969. . . The mother of film director David Lean yelled “action!” at him today in 1908. . . Kaat Mussel, an outspoken woman in Rotterdam (and seller of mussels, hence her name) was born today in 1723.
Words To Eat By
“He gave her a look you could have poured on a waffle.”–Ring Lardner, American writer.
Words To Drink By
“He that eateth well drinketh well,
He that drinketh well sleepeth well,
He that sleepeth well sinneth not,
He that sinneth not goeth straight through Purgatory to Paradise.”